My fingers had loosened their grasp on God, and my eyes were on the door of the high school classroom where we held the Christian club I’d started the previous fall. It was hot for April. I needed air, I needed to walk around campus with my five-dollar Walkman, smoke-thick voices of grunge singers drizzling into my ears. The other leaders watched me, waiting for me to speak, but the words were chalk dust on my tongue. I’d heard them talking lately, voices low as I passed: What’s going on with her?
I hung back until chitchat hummed through the room. I turned toward the door again, lungs thirsting for outside air, and then the girl with lavender eyes walked in and I felt an ancient familiarity, like night fires and the smell of leaves in warm wind.
I pretended I wasn’t looking for Max as I walked around at lunch the next day. When I found her crouched in a corner between brick buildings in a hoodie and headphones, I sat down. “Sorry if this is weird,” I said, meeting her purple eyes only for a second. I handed her a folded square of notebook paper on which I’d written everything: how the boy who called himself a pagan had lured me from God and had then been frightened by my intensity. How I couldn’t go back to Christian warrior and saving souls for the Lord!
The day after that, she handed me a letter.
“It’s not weird,’ she said.
It rained that fall, and the world was all purples and greens like the lights I strung in my room and the sad, monotone Scottish rock singers moaning through my stereo. Without her contact lenses, Max’s eyes looked like sunlight shining through the bits of cola-colored glass we picked up at the beach, tying them with string to make windchimes. We spent hours on my bed, lying head-to-foot, our hands meeting in the middle. This is normal, right? we’d say, our fingers tracing each other. Friends do this, right? It was vertigo, I was falling into something and there was no stopping it. And God loomed overhead like a great black shroud, a ceiling pressing down on us, stealing all the air.
It was a year before we kissed, and by then my love for Max churned in my chest like massive clouds gathering, rolling over one another in a bruised sky. It drenched me like the rain that streaked my Volvo’s windshield as we drove around to coffee shops or the record store in the afternoons. Little day trips of desperation. When the darkness of my bedroom and the raw, slow guitars from the boombox became too heavy, I’d ask her, “Where should we go today?”
She’d shrug and smirk sadly. “Somewhere nice?”
I knew what she meant. Not somewhere expensive or fancy, but somewhere soft and warm, with mellow lights and sweet-scented air. A slow, sheltered place where we could let ourselves ask questions, let whatever this was between us unfurl like a hand opening, without the demand to define and damn it before we could even whisper its name.
When Max’s lips found mine that first time, I felt heavy, solid things shifting themselves inside me. After the pagan boy, I’d sunk into my misery, worn it like a comfortable old coat, draped with musky incense, minor-key guitar. But I’d held in the back of my mind the possibility of returning to God, a secret coin in my pocket, turning it between my fingers. This kiss, the taste of her, her scent like smoke and leaves—there was no reigning this in. Her amber sea glass eyes. Her narrow fingers. The rain against the windows. My life was petals pelted by rain, determined to bloom outward and outward despite the pounding drops knocking them to the concrete. I tried to cling to tangible things, like the punk rock mixtapes she made for me, the hand-scrawled Emily Dickinson poems she slipped in my pockets. But I dreamt I was in a car sliding backward down a steep hill. I felt dragged away into eternity, unable to stop loving her, unable to stop believing we were damned for it.
The horizon of Max’s set lips across from me in my Volvo that night. The eerie orange streetlight painting jagged shapes across her face, her eyes quivering like the skin atop water. It was too much: the constant holding back, restraining our hands, our lips which once explored each other now reciting Bible verses. Each time, we’d failed, clutching at each other in the darkness, feeling the heavy, metallic condemnation. Stuck in a loop of loving and then repenting.
Her mouth was a flatline of finality as she said, I can’t do this anymore. Words bubbled to the surface of my mind and popped, words meant to make her stay. Their futility settled over me like snow, the chill of this knowledge seeping into my bones. We were over.
Cloves and Bones
The air was thick with salt as I walked up the front steps to the house in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Do you like bones and moonshine, fire dancing and accordions? the Craig’s List ad had read. Lavender-grey streaks of fog danced across the sky like cream in black tea. I shuffled my feet on the front porch, wondering what they would ask, how I could talk my way into this house by the sea. I was afraid of how much I needed this: to let myself be shaped by this city of salt and fog.
The man who answered the door was smoking a clove cigarette. He was in his late twenties, tall and tattooed, his eyes lined with kohl, his turmeric-colored braid stretching to his tailbone. He eyed my coat with its wide black and white vertical stripes like an old-time prisoner’s outfit, my oversized thrift-store leather boots, and the calligraphic swirls of eyeliner at my temples. “I think you’ll be a good fit,” he said.
I packed the Volvo with only a few things: hoodies and headphones, a boombox, a book of Emily Dickinson poems, bottles full of sea glass. I painted my new walls: maroon, forest green, black. I played a CD of Bach cello suites and lay on my back on my new giant futon, watching the ripe orange moon outside my massive window. And the fog swirled against the glass like the smoke of ancient fires, painting the mystery of my future.
Noreia Rain is walking below lights like candleflame pearls strung in the trees, the air brushed with roses. She needs this, the strange poetry in her ears, the long shadows below the streetlights. She is straining to hear ancient whispers in forgotten languages. She is tearing apart the burlap, desperate to find the rich soil blooming with thorned, reckless, exuberant life underneath. Her writing has appeared in Transfer Magazine and The Ana. Her poem “bitten” was featured in Wingless Dreamer’s 2021 Halloween Anthology. She is currently seeking a publisher for her poetry collection, The Yellow Inbetween, while working on a memoir and a second collection of poems.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson